Mickey Hill of Riverhead is one of about 43 incarcerated students taking classes offered by the Sound Justice Initiative while incarcerated in Suffolk County. Photo: Alek Lewis

On a Friday afternoon at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank, 18 men wrestled with one of the deepest philosophical concepts: the ‘self.’

The men, who on that day were all in the Sheriff’s Addiction Treatment Program (SATP), were divided into groups of three to discuss different questions on the topic posed by their professor, Kerry Spooner. As the men presented their findings, Spooner reminded them of the writings of the philosophers they had learned about for the past six week, among them Socrates, Emmanuel Levinas and David Hume. When the lesson was done, Spooner outlined the class’ final project: a self-portrait of their ‘self.’

Among the men was Mickey Hill, 33, of Riverhead, who had been taking Spooner’s courses, including the current course philosophy of the self, for the last three months while incarcerated.  

“Every time I’m excited to come [to the class],” Hill said. “There’s always something I could learn. It’s just exciting to me.” 

Hill is one of around 43 students in classes taught by Spooner at both the Yaphank and Riverside correctional facilities. Spooner, a Suffolk County Community College professor, teaches the classes as part of the Sound Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Riverhead she co-founded .

Suffolk County Community College Professor Kerry Spooner, co-founder of the Sound Justice Initiative, teaches a class Friday at the county correctional facility in Yaphank. Photo: Alek Lewis

Spooner, who is also the organization’s president, started teaching five-to-six week liberal arts courses — modeled after modules of her college level courses at Suffolk — about a year ago in collaboration with the Suffolk County Sheriff Office’s rehabilitation program.

The goal of the program is to reduce recidivism — the likelihood of a criminal to reoffend — through education.

“About 85% of incarcerated individuals re-enter our communities, so it is important that we give them the opportunity to return successfully,” Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon said. “Our educational, addiction and vocational programs not only give the men and women in our custody the tools they need to restart as productive members of our community but also works to reduce the recidivism rate in Suffolk County.”

Spooner said the program is “meant to also foster self confidence, dignity, self respect through the liberal arts,” she said. “The liberal arts helps students develop a strong sense of social responsibility when you’re aware and learn about other people’s ideas. It helps having them understand their own place in the world in their relation to one another, their responsibilities [and] their commitments.”

Deputy Warden Vincenzo Barone, who heads the sheriff’s reentry task force, said Spooner approached the sheriff’s office with the idea for the program. He said the facility has had trade training programs, but was looking for a connection to college courses for its reentry program.

“We were looking for someone to come in and give college courses, and then transition into college once they got out of here — and Dr. Spooner has done that,” he said.

Barone said there are around 850 inmates being held between the Riverside and Yaphank facilities. Most are there short-term awaiting trial, while others at the facilities are serving sentences post-conviction.

Spooner works with the Sheriff’s Transition and Reentry Team, also known as S.T.A.R.T, to help students interested in furthering their studies in Suffolk County Community College after they are released from custody, by helping obtain financial aid. Spooner said Sound Justice will have its first-ever cohort of eight students attend Suffolk County Community College following incarceration this fall.

“The reason why we like going into the jails is because we can try to break the cycle earlier. So that means we can prevent people from ever having to go to prison,” Spooner said. “And then in re-entry, it would be really nice to maybe break the cycle, before they even end up here, is really what we’re aiming for. Because once there’s a pattern, I believe it’s difficult to break that.”

An inmate who completes a course with Spooner receives a job recommendation from her and a certificate of completion for the course. “And then for those who are interested in going back to college, then they enter that pathway into college — and I’m guiding them right to Suffolk Community College,” she said.

Philosophy of happiness was the first class Jermaine, who asked to be identified only by his first name, took when he started attending Sound Justice about three months ago.

“It was a brain buster in a good way,” Jermaine said. “It would get us up and get us out of the bed and continue our thinking and make us think of things in a different manner than we may have before. And it opened the floodgates to really, like, want to expand on education and think more. And we bounced ideas off each other when we got back to the dorm, and the essays we’d have to write in regards to it, it really challenged a lot of those who were involved in that first program.”

Spooner said other classes she has taught in the program include courses on critical thinking, literature, a financial literacy course called “Dollars and Cents” and workshops on different elements of landing a job. Spooner said the organization has one other instructor who is teaching a course on comedy that requires students perform five minutes of original standup.

Matthew, 56, said he has been taking Spooner’s classes the last six months. He said learning philosophy has helped him gain a deeper understanding about himself and help him change into a better person. He also asked to be identified only by his first name.

“My thought process is different. It’s changing,” said Matthew, who never attended college. “It’s a welcome change.”

Matthew said he is a licensed electrician and Spooner’s classes have made him think about his future when he leaves the facility. He is considering attending school to certify himself to teach future electricians.

Randy Bolta, incarcerated at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank, is taking a GED class in addition to Spooner’s liberal arts class. He said he dreams of going to college someday.

Spooner said liberal arts also help develop ‘soft skills,’ like problem-solving, critical thinking and communication, which are essential to employers.

Randy Bolta, 45, of Bay Shore said he has only been taking classes with Spooner for a week, but has been enjoying it since he started attending. He said philosophy interests him and wants to continue taking Spooner’s classes. He said he is also taking classes while in the facility to get his GED when he gets out — and hopes maybe one day to go to college.

“Before I came here, I wasn’t really like myself… I’m an alcoholic, do drugs here and there — and I just want to change my life for the better,” Bolta said. “I’m a child of God and I want to continue on the right path and follow His guidance.”

Eventually, Spooner has plans to expand the organization with more teachers and social workers to take on more students and have a larger part in reentry and probation.

The Suffolk County Community College Foundation is committed to helping the Sound Justice cohort when they enter the college, Spooner said. Sylvia Diaz, the foundation’s executive director, said it offers around $500,000 in scholarships for students, in addition to emergency hardship funds to assist students with emergencies. Students coming out of Sound Justice can take advantage of the foundation’s offerings. 

“We’re excited to be working with this program,” Diaz said. “We think that it’s a really great opportunity to transform the lives of some of these justice-involved folks, who for various reasons end up unfortunately going to jail for whatever the reason is. And we look to try to assist everyone in the community — that’s what the community part of Suffolk County Community College is really all about.”

United Way of Long Island is also contributing to the program with scholarships to Suffolk County Community College for three students, including Jermaine and Hill. YouthBuild Long Island Program Director Jenette Adams said each student will receive around $1,000 to further their education. 

“The atmosphere, being in a school or college setting, has influenced me to decide to want to go back to school,” Hill said. “I did have financial issues, but thanks to Dr. Spooner, she kind of helped me get into school again. So, I’m going to give it my all and work as hard as I can to achieve the goals that I have.”

The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.

SHARE
Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]